A Discussion of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World
by Hunter Baker
In the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer brought his knickers and chin beard to America for memorable discussions about Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and How Shall We Then Live? Since that time, conservative Evangelicals and Catholics have been working hard to develop a solid Christian worldview and to advance the kingdom of Christ in the broader culture by redeeming its values. Living within recent memory of a time when things like divorce, abortion, and living together were widely considered shocking and scandalous, Christians over the past four decades have labored toward restoration with the sense that a better past was not too far in the rear-view mirror to be recovered.
Perhaps because that recovery seemed tantalizingly close at times, those of us in the movement may have failed to notice that, although the years when a more Christian lifestyle was normative were not so far in the past, it had indeed been a long time since the most important intellectuals and cultural institutions had been meaningfully faithful. It is this difference between the appearance of culture and the identity of the drivers of culture that drives the analysis of Christian reform gone wrong set forth by James Davison Hunter in To Change the World.
The book is broken up into three large essays. The first essay begins provocatively by asserting that the Christian account of changing the world—holding the right values, thinking Christianly, having courage—“is almost wholly mistaken.” Hunter has noticed that the influence of the Church—after reaching a high point of prestige and influence in the early nineteenth century—has been declining for 175 years. The decline has occurred despite the efforts of tens of millions of enthusiastic Christians in America to transform the culture. At the same time, two groups with far smaller numerical bases, Jews and homosexuals, have made gigantic strides in developing their own cultural influence and power.
Why is it that numerically dominant Christians have lost influence, while much smaller, niche groups, like Jews and homosexuals, have been able to radically increase their power to shape culture? The answer, according to Hunter, is that Christians have misunderstood the levers of change. Christians have assumed that ideas alter history and that a sufficient effort to get certain ideas into circulation will move the world. As a sociologist, Hunter argues that cultural formation is largely the result of institutions, structures of power, and networks of influence.
While Christians have created some impressive institutions in places like Colorado Springs, Wheaton, and Waco, these places cannot confer the same kind of power as New York or Los Angeles. In other words, Christian institutions, publications, and creations of popular culture emanate from what Hunter calls the periphery rather than the center. And the center is where the real power and symbolic capital are found.
Though Hunter does not say as much, one suspects that the left’s great desire to marginalize and undercut Fox News as a media organization stems from the fact that Fox operates out of New York as a non-conforming major player in a business once owned and operated almost completely by a particular kind of elite sensibility. Fox thus gives conservatism a platform in the center of media power. This is something that Christians do not have, and do not have any near-term prospect of possessing.
So we have our Books and Culture and our Christianity Today emanating from Wheaton, Illinois, but neither can compare with the influence of The New York Times Review of Books or The New Yorker. Interestingly, Hunter singles out First Things (created and published in New York) as the one seriously Christian entity to achieve significant influence among elites. (Then again, even First Things is an order of magnitude below anything like the joint dream of Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry to build a world-class Christian university in the Big Apple.)
The overall point here is that while Christians have built strength on the periphery, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as being able to apply leverage at the center. And the center is important because that is where real power lives. As much as we want to extol the grass roots and populism, real cultural change (in Hunter’s account) works from the top down and is driven by elites (often alternative elites) who are able to penetrate the highest and most concentric of social circles. The formula is to create overlapping networks of elites working together with great persistence in various spheres of culture.
Converting from the Top Down
Hunter supports his analysis with references to the historic Church. He notes that the great church fathers frequently came from elite families and had training in Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and jurisprudence. These individuals were able to engage center-elites with a high quality and quantity of intellectual output. The Apostle Paul, of course, is one of the first of this breed. Note his challenge to the men of Athens at the Areopagus, where he uses his understanding of the dominant culture to challenge it.
Rodney Stark’s analysis in The Rise of Christianity agrees with Hunter’s. Stark argues that Christianity was not primarily a lower-class or slave religion (driven forward by its ability to load the powerful with a sense of guilt and to assuage its adherents’ sense of natural inferiority, as some Enlightenment thinkers argued) but, instead, that it was embraced by and spread in significant part thanks to the influence of many in the upper echelons of society. Hunter also points out that missionaries often converted from the top down because doing so created protection for people lower in the social order, who could then convert with less risk to their lives.
He traces the phenomenon through the Reformation, which we think of as a highly popular movement. But in Hunter’s telling, Luther and Calvin were alternative elites, who used their powerful learning in classics and theology to bring a leading edge of modified Christian culture and intellect into contact with sources of social power. Their movement required the safe haven offered by various nobles. Without it, the reform would likely have been snuffed out.
Similarly, an alternative elite consisting of men like the Wesleys, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards brought about the Great Awakening. So, too, did social change come about through the work of William Wilberforce and his fellow elites in the Clapham Circle to bring about the end of slavery in England.
The same dynamic applies with respect to those who are outside the Christian faith. For example, it is true that the universities were originally almost exclusively Christian in both their composition and their outlook. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Enlightenment-oriented elites, working out of alternative institutions such as salons, literary clubs, and royal academies, were able to penetrate and transform the universities.
Thus, the key to world-changing is not to impose a cultural agenda, but to start by creating space for a new way of living and thinking. Challenge the established circles. Penetrate them. Redefine the norms. This, Hunter maintains, is a far better approach than the brute-force method of political organizing.
Consider Prohibition. It was arguably public Christianity’s greatest political/legal success in American history—but also its greatest failure. Temperance activists were able to move the votes, but they failed to change the underlying cultural assumptions. Thus, the reform didn’t last.
But even if you do succeed in winning the cultural battle, Hunter warns, you can’t really control the outcome. For example, the partisans of the Enlightenment, for all their great desire to see scientific advance, would never have desired the creation and use of nuclear weapons. Yet the focus on scientific development that they championed has led to the endangerment of the physical order that these weapons pose.
Time to Reconsider
With his first essay, Hunter achieves three purposes: (1) He describes what is actually required to change the world; (2) he explains how Christians are failing to do what is required; and (3) he warns against the focus on gaining power to effect change. It is also in the first essay that he briefly mentions the model of cultural engagement that he does endorse, which he calls “faithful presence.”
Whether or not one agrees with Hunter’s conclusions, his discussion of how cultural change can actually be achieved is invaluable and should serve as the source of much self-examination and strategic reconsideration among those in the “taking back the culture for Christ” industry. If the reader finds the author convincing on this score (and I do), he will conclude that it is time to de-emphasize the political program; to fire the consultants who teach you how to write a good appeal letter with fake yellow post-it notes and bold, underlined phrases; and to figure out how to create room to breathe and work inside the key, center zones of culture.
Christian philanthropists should pay special attention to Hunter’s arguments as they consider what entities may be worth investing in. Institutions like Robert George’s James Madison program at Princeton University and David Solomon’s Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame spring to mind in this regard. Both of these entities provide opportunities to bring Christians with powerful intellectual chops from peripheral or semi-peripheral locations to institutions within the cultural center, where their ideas may have more impact. In other words, bridge entities of this kind can potentially convey a kind of “centerness” on alternative elites.
But Hunter has not written the book with the goal of helping Christians become more sophisticated, and thereby have a higher chance of success in reclaiming the culture. In fact, he explicitly disclaims any such project. The second essay helps explain his reasoning.
We now live in a low-consensus society (echoes of Schaeffer and the loss of the “Christian consensus”). As a result, the glue that holds us together comes down to coercive power reposed in the state. Indeed, Hunter provides something like an axiom that could be recited in political science courses: Law increases as cultural consensus decreases. Though we may try to pretend that we are avoiding contests about the nature of the good when we make any of our Dworkin-esque attempts at neutrality, we are tilting at windmills. Law implies moral judgment.
As a result, every faction that seeks state power does so in order to impose its understanding of the good on the whole society. Accordingly, our news reporting focuses largely on our perception of who is winning or losing any given battle. Our public life has become politicized. And the problem is that the state becomes the final arbiter, exercising dominance and control.
Hunter believes that Christians have largely bought into the idea of using politics to bring about the Christian vision of the good society. The Christian right is mostly interested in gaining power so that it can retard or even roll back the secularization of society (as evidenced by a particular type of church-state jurisprudence and changes in sexual morality). Those on the Christian left hope to employ the machinery of government to bring about greater material equality between citizens. Neo-Anabaptists reject power and model powerlessness in an attempt to create an alternative civitas in the form of the church. Despite the neo-Anabaptist rejection of political power, they see their own identity in relation to it.
One of the problems with this elevation of politics is that we see the public only in terms of the political. Thinking this way can lead to irresponsibility. We end up championing child welfare programs, for instance, instead of doing something much more immediate, such as adopting a child.
Making the solution to every problem political is problematic also because of what power does. It tends to become an end rather than a means. It tends to grow and become inescapable, thus limiting freedom of action and creating a lasting sense of injury among those who feel they have been excluded from power or intruded upon by it.
The Superior Mode
Hunter’s thoughts on power are welcome and needed, and not only for Christians. Much political discourse in the past couple of decades has centered on the special damage done to the political process by religious participants and their rhetoric. Hunter properly recognizes that it is not so much religious power, but simply power, when exercised by someone other than oneself, that creates the grievance.
Our response to all this should be to “see politics for what it is” and to “decouple the public from the political.” As I write these words, I can’t help but think of the distinction Thomas Paine drew between society and government. Society is a mode of voluntary cooperation we undertake because we recognize that we can achieve more by working together than apart. Government, by contrast, is a necessary evil required by the abuses of human freedom.
It should be clear that the mode of society is far superior to the mode of government and that therefore it is to be preferred over government whenever possible. Hunter appears to be arguing in the same vein. The current political platform of the Conservative party in the U.K. includes many references to a concept called “the big society,” which appears to be based on similar ideas.
Hunter’s notion of being able to see the public as something more than the political is important. Weaning the culture from resolving every disputed question by means of the power of politics is necessary if we are to avoid escalating levels of conflict and resentment. In this connection, however, I think Hunter gives Christian conservatives too little credit. It seems to me that one of their primary goals has been to keep responsibility for resolving questions and disputes within the voluntary mode of society rather than relinquishing it to the coercive mode of government.
It needs to be remembered that Christian conservatives have not been a force for the enactment of the various new restrictions visited upon us in the last half-century so much as they have been engaged in a defensive battle against the advance of a cultural vanguard. Viewed one way, for example, Christian conservatives appear to be “foisting” their view of marriage on the populace. Considered more realistically, though, one might realize that they are simply protecting one of the most widely assumed social facts and wholesome social institutions in the history of the world. Outside of this sort of action on behalf of basic ideas such as the meaning of marriage or the sanctity of life, many within the Christian right believe passionately in voluntary social cooperation and in the notions of decentralization and subsidiarity.
In giving up their dependence on politics as a mode of social change, Christians should, according to Hunter, ramp up the sense of their distinctiveness from the dominant culture. We have all come to accept our functionally differentiated culture more fully than we may realize; thus, the faithful will make their greatest contribution by modeling a noticeably different way. This means that the churched will make decisions on a different basis from the broader culture with regard to “courtships, marriage, child-rearing, duty, obligations, consumption, leisure, retirement,” and other areas, and live accordingly.
Hunter’s third essay brings together the threads of his analysis and attempts to offer a new way forward. Christians have had to adapt to pervasive pluralism. We no longer live in an environment in which it is easy to be a believer because all the social institutions and people around us support our belief. Instead, we are constantly confronted by “multiple and fragmented perspectives.” Christianity is no longer the defender of the social order, as it was in Europe and then America for so many centuries. Now it has returned to the status of a threat, which is how it was viewed in the beginning.
One might expect radical skepticism to be the cultural reaction to an extremely pluralistic environment, but this has not occurred because such skepticism is not really livable. Alternatively, we embrace a type of unstated nihilism that manifests itself in indulgence, acquisition, and spectacle. It is easy to see that Hunter is right here, as we observe increasing consumerism, the idolization of celebrity qua celebrity, and a growing obsession with any scandal that can be manufactured.
During these challenging times, Christians have too often focused on constructing a parallel sacred canopy to replace the one torn apart by modernity. These institutions and ideas can end up working as a segregated sideshow, which bolsters the faithful in their beliefs, but fails utterly to directly challenge the centers of culture. Even though one might concede Hunter’s point here, at least to some degree, it is also true that these parallel structures help keep important ideas alive and are often the sorts of places that produce elites who may reach the center.
One might, for instance, think of Wheaton College in the 1960s. Mark Noll (one of the finest historians of religion in America), Nathan Hatch (a former Notre Dame provost and current president of Wake Forest), and David Jeffrey (a literary scholar and hugely important influence on the Baylor project) all came out of that small school. And there are many others who may not come as readily to mind but who went on to important positions elsewhere, including my own father-in-law, a Wheaton scholarship kid from those days who went on to become dean of libraries at a large state university.
One of the important questions to ask is, Does today’s Wheaton have the same formative power as its 1960s self did? Does Calvin College? I don’t ask these questions to be arch or to insinuate anything, but simply to offer up a sort of ideal to which those of us in Christian academia might aspire.
What to Do?
Hunter’s analysis to this point is outstanding. It is clearly the product of a sociologist who is a Christian and a gifted observer of people, organizations, and events. But it is here that we arrive at the point where the book faces its greatest challenge. Having brought us to a more sophisticated understanding of the cultural situation, the inevitable question is, what should we do?
To answer, Hunter returns with greater focus to the concept of “faithful presence.” Faithful presence means that Christians should be working toward a vision of “Shalom,” which involves order, harmony, abundance, beauty, joy, and well-being for all people. We should offer critical resistance to those things that do not lead to human flourishing and make an extended effort to retrieve social goods that have been lost or are in danger of being lost.
But all of this is done without any real effort to impose. God does not force us against our will to live in conformity with his law. Faithful presence means that we pursue, identify with, and labor toward the good of others. Our exercise of power must conform to Christ’s.
What Hunter means by faithful presence, despite this explanation, is not totally clear. That is not unusual. Sublimities do not often yield to detailed mapping. But my own reading leads me to conclude that it is something like an extended effort to persuade others and attempt to draw them near by loving them, serving them, and conveying a vision of the good that does not contain the threat of imposition.
Certainly, it is clear that Hunter would have Christians completely eradicate anything in their politics that could be viewed as tribal in character. In other words, it must never be “us” against the unwashed “them.” Instead, it is “us” for “them.” And “they” can really feel the benevolence of our intent even if they don’t always agree.
The language in the book about faithful presence is both aspirational and corrective. It is aspirational in the sense that it invites us to come up with fresh and possibly more productive modes of social engagement. It is corrective insofar as it pulls us away from viewing politics as something akin to college athletics, in which one’s team is winning or losing and the other side must be defeated.
Worth Careful Attention
But questions remain (as Hunter surely knows they will). For example, how can we square this social wooing with the need to speak prophetically and, yes, politically, against clear injustice? He suggests, for example, being silent for a season in politics. Is that a reasonable thing to say to the pro-life movement? Would it have been an acceptable thing to say to Christian abolitionists or anti-segregationists?
In addition, he asserts with some confidence that God’s kingdom is not political in character. To be sure, Jesus did not transform his ministry into a political one during his temporal life on earth, but can we be so sure his kingdom is not political? After all, we are talking about the King of kings, the risen Lord, who is able to take away the most potent weapon of the state, which is death (something N. T. Wright noted in his magisterial study of the subject).
Despite the minor objections I have raised to a few issues in its three essays, To Change the World is a very important book for Christians. Certainly, every Christian in the “world-changing” business should read it carefully. Too often, academics and other seasoned readers will pick up a book like this, read the introduction and conclusion and call it a day. That method will simply not work in this case. The book is too rich and too important to be skimmed and set aside. My hope is that many will give it careful attention, consider its arguments and analysis carefully, come up with their agreements and objections, and contribute to an extended conversation. Better yet, let this book improve our cultural engagement. •
Hunter Baker J.D., Ph.D. is a professor and administrator at Union University and a fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His third book, a collection of lectures and essays titled The System Has a Soul was published in 2014.
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